You have had two picture books published; Can I Cuddle the Moon? and Poppy Wash. Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of them?
Poppy Wash was written quite a few years prior to being picked up for publication, as a 60th birthday present to my mother. She has always suggested Michelle (my sister) and I produce a book together. I have always had a gift for the gab and Michelle has always been extremely talented at putting brush/pen to paper. So we set about producing Poppy Wash as a gift to her.
Upon researching and realizing exactly how much it was going to cost us to produce one copy, we took the entire family to a show in a limo instead, (eight of us) and it worked out much cheaper! Poppy Wash was put aside.
Approximately two years later a publishing contract was signed with ABC/Harper Collins and we are excited not only to finally present Mum with ‘her book’ a few years late but also to carry out our lifelong dream of publishing a book as sisters.
The initial scene and idea for Poppy Wash was mapped out in the car on a trip back to the Coast from Bundaberg. Every year at Christmas I ask my husband what he would like and without fail his annual reply has been ‘a pet dragon!’ So the idea of how to find a dragon for a pet, set the scene for my story.
I don’t plot or story map my writing so it is difficult to explain any logical or cognitive progression I make in writing. I write and see where it takes me. I am more often than not surprised by it and this is what makes writing such an enjoyable experience for me.
As the dragons in this story are used as forms of transport I guess it was natural for me to use the analogy of hunting for a new car to help me develop my plot. It was a lot of fun to write!
As a teacher, I also found it very frustrating to find a basic narrative with a simple structure that I could deconstruct with my class in an attempt to show them the basic steps of narrative writing, i.e.: An orientation, complication etc, so I wrote Poppy Wash in a very strict narrative format so that it could be used in the classroom with ease, yet also be a fun and interesting story.
You have taught children as a primary school teacher. How has this helped you in writing children’s books?
Immensely! As teachers, we are surrounded by books of all genres, pace and interest. This exposure has allowed me to develop an understanding of the rhythm of words, the structuring of sentences, what works, what doesn’t work and what holds the children’s interests.
Teaching children the basic structure of texts has allowed me to become quite comfortable with the process of writing. I think this is why I don’t need to plan or story map, it has allowed me to develop my own natural style without over thinking the ‘rules’.
Children have the best imaginations in the world! They aren’t affected by prejudice or assumptions. As a result their writing is raw and takes you to places you could have never imagined yourself. To me that is the perfect fiction. We can learn a lot from our children. Embracing your imagination takes you and others to a place where you can relax, ponder, ignite, enthuse and embrace.
Can I Cuddle the Moon? was illustrated by Lisa Stewart and Poppy Wash was illustrated by Michelle Pike. How would you describe the contribution of the pictures alongside the words in telling these stories?
The process of completing these books was VERY different.
In Can I Cuddle the Moon the graphics were completed without any input from myself, outside of the initial idea of the owl. This was hard for me as I am a bit of a ‘control freak’ when it comes to completing projects. This was my first picture book and I was unaware of the usual processes that took place. In hindsight, I think this was good for me. It taught me some patience. Not only this, but allowing Lisa Stewart the artistic freedom to produce her artwork free from my bias produced a sensational result. Lisa’s collage work is divine. The pictures complement the text beautifully and as a result the book has surpassed my expectations. I am very proud of it.
My sister, Michelle Pike, illustrated Poppy Wash. Michelle and I collaborated the entire way through this process. I really enjoyed working on this with her. We get on very well and have the same sense of humour. I never interfered with Michelle’s vision or process of creating the pictures for PoppyWash.I think that publishing Can I Cuddle the Moon? taught me to take a back seat contently. I also love her work, so it was easy to sit back and watch it roll out. I am equally as proud of this book.
What do you think is the key to making shorts works of fiction like children’s picture books work well in such a short length, or what makes one your favourite picture books work well for you as a reader?
Imaginative text is without a doubt the biggest draw card for me. That is why I love authors such as Pamela Allen and Dr Seuss so much. Children like to be entertained and so do we! There is nothing more satisfying than watching the face of a child who is totally absorbed by the book being read to them. It’s magical!
I am also very partial to rhyme. There aren’t enough rhyming books out there in my opinion. Rhyme teaches us so much about the use of language and is so important in the development of children’s understanding of ‘the way words work’.
Picture books obviously contain condensed text, so it is important that the rhythm of the text and sentence structuring sits perfectly with readers. Picture books are also intended to be read out loud, so it is important that this ‘flow’ is transferrable to oral reading.
Picture books are visual books; as a result the text and illustrations need to be married beautifully. The wonderful thing about picture books is that the illustrations can add things to the story that the text hasn’t told. This encourages children to talk about the book. Promoting oral language in our children is the key to developing sound literacy skills and therefore confident readers and writers of the future.
Can you tell this is a passionate topic of mine?
You have also written short stories, such as Last Chance in which your main character is buried in a coffin to fake his death. How would you compare your approach to writing for children to your approach to writing for adults?
I really enjoyed writing Last Chance; it gave me the opportunity to write to my darker side. Whilst children’s fiction is my area of comfort it is nice to be able to step out once in a while and work my imagination a little harder. I can obviously touch on topics and language that wouldn’t be appropriate to children, and it’s nice to grow up sometimes! I’d like to try my hand at more adult fiction and this is something I would like to concentrate on developing next year.
You have a short story set in Somalia, called The Dust Bowl, in the upcoming anthology The Australian Literature Review is publishing for charity in partnership with worldreader.org. What can readers look forward to in The Dust Bowl?
The Dust Bowl gives readers a little taste of Africa. I’ve used the universal love of soccer, in an attempt to help relate the human emotions of struggle, persistence and versatility.
I spent a little time in Somalia as a seventeen year old, so a lot of the taste, sound and feel of this story are based on my memories of this time.
On your website, under Reading Tips, you are quoted as saying: “Your imagination is like a tree, the more you feed it the more it will grow.” What are some of your favourite ways of feeding your imagination?
- Reading! Reading! Reading! – My other favourite quote is: “The more you read, the more you know. The more you know, the more places you will go!” Dr Seuss
- Talking to my children. Talking to other children. Listening to children.
It’s amazing where your ideas come from. My three and five year old children have a wonderful innocent perspective on life. I have a book full of quotes from them that help feed my story lines. Can I Cuddle the Moon? is actually a question that my son asked me when he was two.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
I’ve always had a great fondness of The BFG from Roald Dahl. He’s a bit of an oxymoron for me. He’s a huge monstrosity of a gentle giant with a delightful language of his own. Dahl’s ability to use nonsense words within his text and make them seem perfectly normal is genius.
I often use these words at home with my children. ‘Sniggleflitzer’ would have to be my favourite. We love making up silly rhymes or words and it also helps feed the imagination!
What is next for your fiction writing?
I have just sent my next manuscript for a picture book through to my agent. I am hoping to get it signed up next year. It has a touch of rhyme in it so I have my fingers crossed. It is also a lot of fun! I have also started on my first adult novel. I am still in the teething phases of this, so watch this space.
I have quite a few bookings lined up at schools and Literature Festivals next year, so look forward to sharing my works and discovering ideas for new ones.
I do plan on taking a few weeks off over Christmas. Hopefully this will give me time to reboot my imagination and fill my log of ideas, ready to hit 2011 with an onslaught of witticisms and a frenzy of fresh ideas!
More on Kerry Brown and her fiction can be found at www.kerrybrown.com.au.
The Australian Literature Review